The “Gift” of Former Debtors Speaking About Debt-Reduction

DH = Dear Husband

Public speaking: My talk at the library for Financial Literacy Month

November is Financial Literacy Month, and Monday evening of this week, I spoke at a local public library about our journey out of debt. Most people who attend talks about personal finance are already financially literate. They seek out opportunities to learn more in an ongoing effort to keep their financial health strong. My talk wasn’t going to fit the bill for these people. It was a presentation for debtors who who don’t normally set foot in a room under the banner of “financial literacy”.

Twelve people had registered for the event, and my hope was that at least one person would come away from it with a strong sense of encouragement. My talk was promoted on the library’s website with the title “Getting Out of the Red” and as “A Personal Journey”. It stated that my experience would be “presented in a language that resonates with many, and hopefully will inspire others to get out of debt.” I hoped that people actually struggling with debt would be drawn to it. Much as I  admire financial whizzes, they weren’t my target audience.

Nervousness . . .

As the day approached, I had to make a real effort to keep my focus where it was supposed to be: on the people who would be listening and on the message of hope I had to share. It was a challenge to keep that focus as so many worries crept in:

  • There was no way I was going to be able to present without reading. Would that be OK?
  • Would the 12 people who had registered actually show up?
  • Would the right people show up? Debtors who would be able to relate to what I had to say? Or would there just be personal finance keeners who would find it a waste of time?

My talk was scheduled for 6:30, and  at 6:25 there were 2 people in the room. “This could be really awkward,” I thought. But within a few minutes, there were 20 people. It was time to start.

Personal mixed with perspective and advice

Over the next 50 minutes or so, I shared our story as DH advanced the PowerPoint slides. If you’ve been reading  this blog and/or Prudence Debtfree for any amount of time, you already know the chapters of that story:

  • My many, many years of head-in-the sand chaotic finances
  • DH’s  job loss during the high-tech bust
  • Our 6 years of financial stress
  • The launch of DH’s successful home business and our return to “normal”
  • Our financial wake-up moment
  • Our journey out of debt – both the practical side and the deeper side
  • Our encouraging progress after 4½ years

Interspersed with our personal story, I included national trends and statistics to give the context of increasing and widespread indebtedness in society, as well as advice and insights from the sources that we’ve tapped into – especially Dave Ramsey’s book The Total Money Makeover.

“This is just what I needed to hear”

After I spoke, there was some time for questions and answers, and towards the end, a  woman sitting at the back raised her hand. “I’m old,” she started (not true – she is middle-aged, like me), “my marriage has failed, and I’m just getting on my feet. I’ve never heard anything like this – that I can relate to so much. This is just what I needed to hear. So I want to thank you . . .” She became a bit weepy as her words trailed off, and she gestured what I recognized as a profound expression of thanks.

“You’re getting weepy just telling me about this,” said Cam, a colleague at work as we discussed it the next day. And I’m getting weepy now as I write it. In that moment, I knew that all the preparation and nervousness had been worth it.

J. Money on the “gift” of Debt

In response to a post J. Money wrote about payday loans, a reader named Beth left this comment: “HOW DO WE HELP EDUCATE PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT INTO PERSONAL FINANCE . . . But for real – the demographic that needs this info aren’t reading these blogs. How do we reach them?”

I felt strongly that I had an answer to Beth’s question. The “demographic” she is talking about – including debtors who get sucked into outrageously expensive payday  loans – can be reached by people who have been there. When I was in my long-lasting chaotic finance mode, any money advice that came my way was nothing but white noise to me. It took Dave Ramsey – a former debtor who actually filed for bankruptcy before he got his financial act together – to convince me to get my head out of the sand. He had been there.

I sent Jay an email message about it, and this is what he said to me: “You’re right that it’s much easier to be listened to having gone through it yourself. I can talk all day and night about it, but I still can’t relate 100% as I’ve never been there. You guys have gifts, and gotta use it! Even though it sounds weird to say that that’s what Debt gave you :)”

So debt had given me a gift, and when I used it Monday evening, at least one other debtor found hope.

Constructive comments – agreed. Negative comments – ouch.

Evaluation forms were filled in by everyone who attended, and I was given the opportunity to read them. Here I have to admit that I was really brought down by some negative comments. It’s a risk you take when you put yourself out there, and I know that – but I still had a hard time with it.

As I expected, I got some  constructive criticism for having read my presentation, and although I couldn’t have done it any other way this time around (I was just too nervous), I had to agree. Another constructive piece of criticism had to do with a lack of interaction during the presentation. Again, agreed. But 2 evaluations were not constructive. They were negative and mean-spirited. Although I can’t be sure, I suspect that these hurtful comments came from people who weren’t struggling with debt and who couldn’t see the value of my experience to other debtors. I wish I could say their words all slid like water off a duck’s back – but they didn’t.

Positive comments – encouragement!

For a while, I wasn’t even able to process the majority of evaluations which were extremely encouraging and positive. But I can  now.”Thank you for your honesty and wisdom”; “Presenter was very good, confident, yet approachable.  Answered questions well and even directed and encouraged other resources”; “These programs are useful”; “I liked the simplicity of the presentation slides. Easy to follow”;  “It was a transparent story about one person’s life but also brought in the stats.  Lots of info and content!!”; “Very comprehensive info. Will check out the recommended blogs”; “Thank you, thank you, very, very much.”

The organizer from the library said she’d like to talk with me about giving another presentation next year for Financial Literacy Month. I told her I would definitely be interested.

What about you?

I followed the lead of Brian from  Debt Discipline who has written about his talks at local libraries. For those of you who are debtors making your way out of debt, would you consider giving a presentation about your experience? You might not think  of yourself as an expert, but it is very possible that you have a gift. You might be able to reach people the experts don’t manage to reach – because they haven’t been there like you have. There are always risks involved in sharing your story – especially your story about debt – but maybe it’s a risk worth taking.

Your comments are welcome!

*Photo courtesy of


38 comments on “The “Gift” of Former Debtors Speaking About Debt-Reduction

  1. So honored to know that I was a bit of inspiration for this talk. It sounds like it went really well. Audiences can be tough, but I’m sure everyone took something away from the presentation. Even if they didn’t say it in the evaluation form I’m sure it planted a financial seed in their mind.

    Speaking from personal experience is such a great why to relate to others. When you say “I know what you are going through” you really do. Sharing the personal story, the ups and downs solidifies that.

    I just got a call yesterday from a library I had contacted months ago asking if I had availability for January to speak. They think it would be a good idea post holidays to share the topic.

    1. “a bit of inspiration”? I’d say you were the whole inspiration, Brian. I don’t think everyone did take something away, but I think the people I was trying to reach in the first place did : ) I’m so glad you’re getting so many opportunities to speak!

    1. Thank you, Laurie. I have no doubt that if you are to speak in public about your experience with debt, you will know exactly when to take that step.

  2. Wow! I’m really impressed that you got out of your comfort zone to reach a new audience for your message and help some folks outside of the blogworld.

    And I’m sorry you had to deal with some hostility. Most of the time, we’re pretty lucky that the comments on our blogs stay amazingly polite and even spirited debates remain civil. It’s one of the things I love about our corner of the internet. I’m glad getting a couple of trolls didn’t overwhelm the good that you did.

    1. Thanks, Emily. It was far more “out of my comfort zone” than I realized. You’re right about how lucky we are – even when there are disagreements – that people express their views with civility on our blogs. There’s another thing we can teach folks outside the blog world : )

  3. That you got only a couple of negative type comments out of a group of 20 is really good and something that you should be happy about. The best speaker in the world is not going to connect with every single person in any room. It’s just the law of averages.

    In other words, it sounds like you did great.

  4. Congratulations on (I foresee) the first of many talks to be given in your future! Getting your feet wet is always the hardest, but now you know what to expect next time you present. So nice that your DH is part of your team effort in handling the power point slides – leaving you to concentrate on getting your message across. Looks like you will be both a successful author and great motivational speaker in your retirement 🙂 Great things ahead, Ruth.

    1. I hope you’re right about “Getting your feet wet is always the hardest” (because it was hard). I also was grateful to have DH there. He even joined in the conversation after my talk. One person in the group pointed out that it was great our marriage had survived the tough years, and it gave me a new appreciation for that fact. You’re a perceptive one, Nancy!

  5. It sounds like you did a great job and helped a number of people, as I was sure you would. 🙂

    I have to agree with you and J. Money, that there’s nothing like hearing other people’s stories to make something seem achievable and to be inspired. And I don’t think this is true only with paying off debt, but rather with all sorts of personal experiences.

    1. That’s right, Amy. Who wants to hear from a person who’s always been skinny how to lose weight? There’s something about overcoming that inspires. It creates the kind of story that’s worth sharing in any area of life.

  6. Ruth, I’m so glad it went well. “This is just what I needed to hear…” is the greatest thing ever!!! Now she knows someone who’s done it, is aware of the possibilities and is armed with the information she needs to get started on her path. This is just wonderful, in my opinion. Congrats on your first successful presentation and kudos for stepping outside of your comfort zone to help others.

    1. Thank you, Amanda! I really, really hope for that woman that she does “get started on her path.” I really hope it wasn’t just one moment of inspiration, but the first of many, many steps forward.

  7. You gave generously of yourself and your experiences. You profoundly affected at LEAST one person. As a result, her life has taken a positive turn in her quest for personal finance success. Ask yourself this ~ if she is the ONLY person that you helped in all your years on earth, will it have been worth it? Knowing you Ruth, I believe I know the answer already. I hope you record the next presentation and post it on your site. I for one would be thrilled! 🙂

    1. If she is the only person I helped that night (I’ve modified your “all your years on earth” : ) it was absolutely worth it. And I hope you are right in saying “her life has taken a positive turn.” I hope I have the chance to see how she’s doing at some point in the future. Thank you, Kay.

  8. I am SO unbelievably proud of you, Ruth.

    As someone who very much dislikes public speaking, I not only congratulate you on getting up there and just DOING IT, but also for going out of your way to try and help others with the skills you have. And face-to-face no less, the best types of interaction!

    So while the presentation itself may not have been interactive, you can bet your sweet ass there there aren’t many places you can go – in person – to talk about this stuff. Which is very much interactive, especially with the Q&A part. I’d take learning in-person all day every day if it was possible.

    You inspire me 🙂

    1. Wow! Thank you so much, Jay. I was going to let you know that I had quoted your email message, but looks like you found out before I had the chance. You are right in saying that “there aren’t many places you can go to talk about this stuff.” I don’t think any bank or other lending institution would be interested in hosting a talk about debt-reduction. What would be in it for them? Debt is a huge source of profit. Libraries, on the other hand, can be very neutral, and that’s why Brian’s idea of speaking at a library really struck me. “In person” communication about debt is different for me after more than 4 years online. I hope to get better at this type of interaction – because so many people would benefit from knowing they have more power than they realize to overcome their debts. Thanks again!

  9. Nicely done!! It sounds like you were able to reach someone who was in desperate need of knowing she wasn’t alone. That is worth everything in my book. For those jerky two, haters are going to hate no matter what is presented to them. I’m sorry they couldn’t be more constructive.

    I just published a series of posts this week on my financial demise. It was BRUTAL to relive the experience through writing. Every time I edited, I cried. Every time I read it out loud to be sure it made sense, I cried. Reading the comments this week that have ALL been positive so far, I cried. I can only imagine having to get up there and speak it out loud…I’m sure you have guessed by now – I would have cried! I give you TONS of credit for having the strength and courage to get up there and speak. You are one brave lady!!

    I heard about you on J’s forum – I look forward to reading more… 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, Miss Mazuma. Lots of crying going on there! I completely understand your tears. Indebtedness and breaking free from it represent so much more than money and math. There are intertwined patterns of thought, patterns of relationship, and deeply ingrained habits that get exposed and healed in the process, and it’s very hard to do it all justice through words. Tears do a much better job of it : ) I look forward to learning more about your story.

  10. A great opportunity and it’s encouraging that you have been booked for next year already. Hopefully the attendees learned something from the experience just as you did. Maybe they can relay your experience to one of their family members. You never know.

    As others have said, you have the “street credibility” that others of us in the PF world do not have.

    1. “Street cred”? I like it! I thought the same thing, Josh – that some of the money-smart people there might have gained insight to be able to help friends and family who struggle with money – but who would never attend a talk on anything to do with financial literacy. I hope that is the case. Thanks!

  11. Kudos to you for giving the speech! Ironically I have my first presentation next Friday! I also am very nervous. I am hoping my content is relevant to the audience, that I make it through the full hour without skipping a beat, etc. I’m excited about the opportunity but like you I’m nervous and this is definitely not something I would typically do!

    1. All the best, DC! Perhaps it’s not ironic at all. Perhaps the time has come for personal finance to come out of the closet. I hope you’ll let everyone know how it goes.

  12. good for you ruth for doing this. I do think people can relate to someone who has been through something. I’ve often thought about doing a talk but since debt was never really my issue, I have yet to come up with an angle. But I do think there is something I could hopefully teach someone!

    1. “I do think there is something I could hopefully teach someone” – that’s almost funny. OF COURSE there is! What comes to mind is a play on the word “balance” – which applies to both personal finance (as in your bank balance) and to living (as in work-life balance). Let me know when you go on your speaking tour.

  13. I’m so glad you did this and that it went well. That’s awesome that twenty people showed up and most expressed being helped by the talk. Your story is very powerful and I know that is what sticks with people more than any specific practical suggestion.

    We once did a short talk to our church, which is mostly college students but with some young families and middle-aged/empty nesters. I think our message resonates most with young people who are still choosing their lifestyle. We’ve made mistakes, to be sure, but we don’t have the big turnaround experience. I’m so glad you’re leveraging that to help others.

    1. It’s SO valuable to inspire people to take the right direction to begin with! A turnaround takes a lot more energy – though it’s worth every bit of it. The church offers another one of those rare neutral zones for talks like this. I hope you and your husband will have other opportunities to speak. Perhaps a not-so-short talk next time?

        1. OK, you are already a well-established pf speaker. I think that if I’d had the chance to sit in on a talk given by someone like you when I was in my 20s, my whole episode with debt might have been avoided. I’d be interested to know how you compare your IRL experience vs. your online experience. (A future post maybe?)

  14. Debtors helping debtors. Sharing their stories; connecting with fellow debtors; inspiring hope in each other that there’s a way out of debt. Debtors sharing experience/tools/resources/successes and failures. A system of mutual aid. Well done!!!

  15. I’d love to share my journey, despite still being on my journey and feeling like a spent sponge in need of more knowledge I can relate very well to people who make 6 figures and are waiting for midnight to have their checks deposited to put gas in their car. It’s been hard after two divorces, three children and putting two husbands through careers and being left with debt, kids and dogs to care for and dig myself out stronger and wiser.

    1. Thank you for reading this post and for commenting, Rosario. Those of us still on our journey have something to share – and our progress can be encouraging to others who want to move forward. I’m sorry to hear you feel like a “spent sponge”. It sounds to me like you could do with some refreshing, some encouragement, and some connection with people who have compassion for your struggles and belief in your potential. For “knowledge”, I would recommend reading Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. (That’s the book that got me started in the right direction.) For ongoing encouragement, read blogs written by people trying to change their financial reality. You are not alone. And I believe you WILL grow “stronger and wiser” as you put one foot in front of the other towards debt-freedom and financial freedom. Hope to hear from you again!

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